History of the Oregon Bach Festival
[caption id="attachment_135" align="alignnone" width="470"] Beall Hall, 1982[/caption]
In 1970 German organist and conductor Helmuth Rilling came to the University of Oregon for a series of workshops and an informal concert. Since then the Oregon Bach Festival—through the efforts of Rilling, co-founder Royce Saltzman, and a cadre of volunteers, musicians, patrons and donors—has blossomed into one of the foremost celebrations of Bach’s music and legacy in the United States.
That first collaboration between Rilling and Saltzman was modest, culminating in a concert of short choral and organ works. But in 1971, under the banner of the “Summer Festival of Music,” four concerts were added to the schedule, including a complete performance of Bach’s St. John Passion. Over the next few years, the Festival expanded to include performances of major choral-orchestral works, instrumental and chamber concerts, solo recitals, workshops, and master classes. As the decade closed, the event was renamed the Oregon Bach Festival, more clearly defining the Festival’s location and honoring the composer who inspired the founders.
As an outgrowth of the University of Oregon’s School of Music, the Festival was originally housed at UO’s Beall Concert Hall, one of the finest chamber recital rooms in North America. With the 1982 opening of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, the Festival was able to expand and attract renowned performers of the highest caliber.
[caption id="attachment_136" align="alignright" width="240"] Helmuth Rilling, John Evans, and Royce Saltzman in Stuttgart.[/caption]
Such internationally regarded artists as Arleen Auger, Sylvia McNair, Frederica von Stade, Ben Heppner, Thomas Quasthoff, Jeffrey Kahane, Robert Levin, Ya-Fei Chuang, Nicholas McGegan, Sarah Chang, Midori, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin, The 5 Browns, Pink Martini, and Savion Glover have been introduced to the Eugene-Springfield community, courtesy of the OBF. Members of the Festival chorus and orchestra come from professional organizations throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe and return year after year.
In 2008, under the leadership of a new executive director, John Evans (former Head of Music at the BBC in London) the Festival expanded its geographic reach to Portland and began to diversify its programming, with artist residencies and partnerships, and a co-production with the UO’s School of Music and Dance of the ChamberMusic@Beall series during the Fall and Winter concert seasons. Since 2008, the Festival has continued to extend its statewide reach, with the BachFest PDX series in Portland and concerts in Ashland, Bend, Corvallis, Florence, Newport, Lincoln City and Astoria. Another transition of leadership was initiated in August 2011, when the Festival named British conductor Matthew Halls its artistic director designate. In 2013 executive director Evans was promoted to President & General Director of the OBF, and with the “Passing of the Baton” concert at the 2013 festival, Halls succeeded Rilling as artistic director.
The 2009 world première of Sven-David Sandström’s Messiah is one of many examples of the Festival’s commitment to celebrating the Bach legacy with new commissions. In 2001 Helmuth Rilling won a Grammy award for Best Choral Performance for the Festival’s world première recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo, and the “Passing of the Baton” concert in 2013 included a special OBF commission from Scottish composer, James MacMillan, to celebrate Rilling’s 80th birthday. McMillan is currently writing a Bach-inspired cantata commissioned for OBF 2016.
Education has always been the heartbeat of the Festival. The master class in conducting offers advanced training in choral and orchestral conducting. Over the years it has served more than 1,200 conductors from across the U.S. and around the world. In 2013 the Festival re-launched the Rilling Endowment to support this master class program, in honor of the founding artistic director’s legacy.
The Discovery Series format Rilling pioneered in Eugene—involving the master class program, lecture-demonstrations, and concerts—became the model for the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, which he founded in 1981, as well as for subsequent Bach academies Rilling led in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia. Meanwhile the OBF’s Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy, now in its seventeenth year, provides an intensive training and performing experience for high school singers from across the country; and in 2014 the Festival debuts its new OBF Organ Institute and has announced plans for its new HIPP (historically informed performance practice) orchestral academy, to be launched during the 2015 Festival.
Festival concerts have reached worldwide audiences through broadcasts on National Public Radio, American Public Radio, Voice of America, and the European Broadcasting Union, and via both the British and Canadian broadcasting corporations. Writers from The Times of London, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal have praised the Festival for its “pioneering approach to programming”, describing it as “virtually without equal in America” and “one of the world’s leading music festivals.” The Festival’s Digital Bach Project (funded by the Hinkle Charitable Foundation and accessed via the OBF website) was launched in 2011 to extend the Festival’s reach with interactive explorations of the B Minor Mass, Goldberg Variations, St. Matthew Passion, and the Well-Tempered Clavier.
As Festival artistry has grown, so has funding from such public and private supporters as KeyBank, American Airlines, Bigfoot/Pepsi-Cola, Wildish Companies, Valley River Inn, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Oregon Arts Commission, the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and both the Silva Endowment and the Nils and Jewel Hult Endowment of the Arts Foundation of Western Oregon through the Oregon Community Foundation. Important individual contributions have come from thousands of citizens. In particular, the gifts of the Scharpf family and Bill Bowerman helped to sustain artistic funding during a critical time in the early 1980s; and thanks to the leadership of J. Peter and Mary Ann Moore, and Andrew and Phyllis Berwick, the $10 million Saltzman Endowment, completed in 2010, has provided substantial funding stability for the future.
For more than four decades the masterworks of Bach, and his legacy down the ages, have found enthusiastic and committed audiences in the Pacific Northwest through the Oregon Bach Festival. With new directors at the helm, the OBF is committed to honor the past, cherish its legacy and celebrate what promises to be an illustrious future.